Many of us have been there: sitting in the middle of some beautiful destination on a much-anticipated getaway, on the beach or in the mountains or wherever strikes our fancy, and ... staring at our phones. The little screen so often trumps the giant screen that is real life, even in moments when the intention is to take a break from the little screen and the day-to-day stress it brings with it.
There are plenty of ways our phones make travel easier. We have fast, immediate access to reviews, ratings, and recommendations to help guide our decisions. We snap pictures to capture memories and share them with others. And, of course, there’s GPS — truly, we ask ourselves, how did anyone ever find anything before the existence of Google Maps? The truth is, they did find things, and everything turned out fine.
For all the ways modern technology can improve our vacations, it can also make them worse. It’s an obvious point that checking your work emails when you’re supposed to be off sucks. What’s perhaps not so obvious is that posting to Instagram when you’re on a boat floating by a glacier in Patagonia kind of does, too. When you’re back at the hotel, Instagram and the picture you just took will still be there for the posting, but the glacier won’t (not only because you left, but also, eventually, because of climate change).
Living and dying by internet recommendations sometimes means that we all end up in the same places and have a miserable time for it, and we’re so focused on checking off the prototypical what-to-do boxes that we forgo more niche activities we might enjoy more. We stare at Google Maps for the majority of a 20-minute walk to get to the restaurant a handful of YouTube influencers say is a must-try, missing the 15 restaurants that might have been great in the interim. Getting the picture for Instagram may help us enjoy and remember the visuals of a place more, but that can come at the expense of the rest of the experience. We often pull out our phones to entertain ourselves during some downtime, not realizing that the exercise might actually make us more bored.
I’m not saying we all need to throw our phones into the ocean when we go on vacation, but it is worth pausing to ask whether we’re accidentally ruining our time away a little bit because we just can’t quit the portable internet device we carry around with us 24/7.
“People primarily use their phones for leisure, that’s how phones are marketed, that’s how they’re sold. They’re lifestyle enhancers, they’re leisure devices,” said Andrew Lepp, a professor at Kent State University who studies the impact of mobile phones and social media on behavior. “The question then is: Do they enhance our leisure or do they distract from it? It can do both, but if we’re not careful, it can diminish our experience of leisure.”
Your phone on vacation might be kind of fine ... until you get sucked in
It is at the very least difficult — though not impossible — to abandon your phone entirely when traveling. The device often serves as your plane ticket, your credit card, and your tour guide. In the age of QR code menus, you often need a phone to figure out what a restaurant is serving. At some hotels, it turns into your room key, too. (That these scenarios are less than ideal for people without a smartphone is worth chewing on, but that’s a separate story.)
Some of this is generally positive. It’s nice not to have to memorize trip details because you can keep them on your phone; it’s great to be able to grab an Uber in a few taps. When your phone frees up space in your brain for other activities, that’s a plus. The problem is that once you look at your phone for one thing you do need it for, it’s easy to get sucked in. Who among us hasn’t gone to check the weather, only to get distracted by whatever notifications have appeared and never figure out whether it’s supposed to rain?
“There’s a functional purpose to the technology that facilitates our experience, but the convenience of having it in our hand lures us into the trap of relying on it too extensively to document when maybe we’re better off experiencing,” said Nathaniel Barr, a professor specializing in cognitive psychology at Sheridan College whose research has examined the ways we use smartphones as a sort of extended mind. It’s not bad to use your phone to externalize some tasks, like storing your hotel reservation or remembering your itinerary, but the problem arrives when you start using it to check social media and read work emails just as you always would.
Lauren, a finance manager for a large manufacturing company in New Jersey, checked her work email while waiting for a flight to Florida on a Sunday evening in March. She decided to text her boss about one message regarding an upcoming audit with her thoughts. That opened up a can of worms of communications that she wasn’t able to escape for much of her trip — instead, she wound up with a constant stream of texts and calls from colleagues.
When I asked why she responded to the initial Sunday evening email, she joked, “Because I hate myself, I have no idea.” Lauren, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to not put her complaints about her job on blast, just can’t stay away from work — she’s been forwarding emails to colleagues intermittently throughout her trip. And it’s not just work that has her distracted. “I was lying by the pool and had a book in my hand, a drink on my other side, but still, I was scrolling on Instagram, I don’t even know why. There was nothing even that interesting,” she said. Leaving her phone in her room isn’t an option — it serves as her room key, too.
The distracting effects of phone use can cancel out some of the phone’s benefits, explained Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She pointed to the specific example of taking photos. Her research has shown that taking photos increases the enjoyment of positive experiences and that it can lead people to better remember what they saw as they pay closer attention to the visual details of their surroundings to figure out the picture. But once the person goes to post the photo they just took on social media, the scenario shifts. “Whenever social media or other types of sharing becomes part of the experience, it actually distracts from our photo-taking benefits,” Barasch said.
People experience “self-presentation concerns,” she explained, meaning they get anxious when thinking about how others will view their lives and experiences. “The same trade-off applies if I’m taking notes, if I’m tweeting, having text-based conversations — that’s good if it immerses you, if it makes you attend to new details that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed,” she said. “But the downside is when you’re thinking about how others are going to view it.”
Being so focused on any one thing, including photos, might mean missing out on other important parts of a vacation experience, too. Those taking photos are less likely to remember what they hear, say, from a tour guide, or they don’t pay attention to what their food tastes like or the music they’re hearing. My colleague Brian Resnick had a great story a few years back on how smartphones affect your memory. “We have limited attentional resources because we’re human,” Barasch said.
That little entertainment device might actually accomplish the opposite
Using your phone more can make you feel more anxious and, perhaps more surprisingly, more bored — the opposite of what one sets out to accomplish when vacationing. Lepp said that just 15 minutes of staring at social media on their smartphone can cause an increase in boredom and a decrease in positive emotions. In other words, when you pull out your phone to entertain yourself, you might be accomplishing the opposite.
“When you think about activities that really make you feel good, like a deep sense of enjoyment, that really absorb your attention, those are activities that are challenging, that require a little bit of skill,” Lepp offered up as an explanation.
There just aren’t a lot of activities that a phone presents us with that can sustain our concentration for a prolonged period of time. “A lot of what we do on the phone is relatively simple,” Lepp said. “Scrolling through social media is probably one of the most time-consuming things a person does on the phone, and it doesn’t take any effort at all, so we get bored quickly.”
Make a plan to stay off your phone for your next getaway — and try to stick to it
There’s no surefire way to make sure you don’t sabotage your next trip because you can’t get off your phone — and let’s be honest here, you’re definitely bringing it with you. It’s a good idea to try to set limits for yourself ahead of time. You might want to delete certain apps altogether, especially because phones are designed to suck you in, like a little vibrating siren song that never stops. Or you can just try to be extra intentional about staying away.
How well any of this might work is a bit of an open question. “That requires us to have self-control, and the research shows that if there’s one thing humans have a hard time with, it’s doing the things they say they want to do,” Barr said. “It’s the say-do gap. We all have the best of intentions — to eat healthier, to exercise more, to save money — and closing that gap between our intentions and our actions is incredibly difficult.”
Emily, from Texas, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, set out to be intentional about her phone use on a recent trip to New Orleans and was largely successful. She says her screen time dropped from eight hours a day, adding “don’t judge me,” to two or three. “In the mornings, whenever I first woke up, I would catch myself and say, ‘Okay, you’ve been on your phone too long, let’s get up, go take a shower, and get out,’” she said. “I just wanted to experience life, and you’re not really experiencing life if you’re on your phone.”
I, too, tend to think about being on my phone too much and missing out on life a lot, including and especially when I’m traveling. And still, whenever I’m on vacation, I catch myself staring at Instagram and sneaking into Slack and peeking at emails multiple times a day instead of taking in whatever is going on around me. My phone once again morphs into a device for wasting time, this time from an exotic location.
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